I argue politics for a living. In the years after 9/11 there emerged a vulnerability in this country, exploited by some, to any criticism of government policy. Dissent made people nervous, even suspicious. This jumpiness inspired a mob-like attack on anyone who said anything that contains even a jolt of novelty, a spark of evidence that a mind somewhere might be getting out of line. Every week, it seemed, there was someone - Bill Maher, the Dixie Chicks - who had said something you’re not supposed to say,
How about this for a thought: arguing politics, arguing about the politics of foreign policy, especially, and, yes, whether the decision was right to invade and occupy Iraq was a smart move or not, whether it’s right to keep our forces there now, whether the whole “mindset” of this war is good for our country, is a matter of legitimate debate. Arguing what’s good for this country isn’t unpatriotic, speaking up and caring about what we’re doing in the world can be the very essence of patriotism. Trying to silence criticism is the very opposite of democracy.
What happened last week offers evidence that this long period of nervous debate is ending. When President Bush accused his fellow Americans of “appeasement” for advocating meetings with leaders of hostile countries, he was hit back hard by Barack Obama. When a Bush advocate came on “Hardball” and couldn’t identify the most basic information about the historic appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s that showed the shallowness of the comparison, even by those making the loudest claims.
President Bush made a basic political mistake here and Barack Obama made a smart one.
By seeming to attack Obama personally Bush made him the clear leader of the Democratic opposition. That was Lyndon Johnson’s mistake when he attacked Richard Nixon back in 1966. When Obama came back hard, he executed the tactic known in military matters as the “attack from a defensive position.” By swinging hard at a rival who has just unleashed his attack you catch his flat-footed; you nail him at a point he can’t defend himself because he’s already committed to his line of attack. It’s what Ronald Reagan did when Jimmy Carter swung at his early opposition to Medicare. “There you go again, Mr. President.”
The exchange over “appeasement” was Bush’s worst political move of recent memory, Obama’s best riposte.
But don’t get me wrong. The substance of this episode and its role in the policy debate far outweighs the politics. This administration has been successful for seven years in suppressing a consistent voice of opposition. When relentless battles occurred over funding the war, the Democrats in Congress have failed to state their position on Mideast policy clearly. On the matter of direct talks with Iran, Barack Obama just did. As Fareed Zakaria writes in this week’s Newsweek, the need to make contact with Iran was the unanimous judgment of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group. Zakaria points out that the direct dealings with Iraqi Sunnis, who had been hostile to our presence in their country, has been key to the reduced violence of this year.
So after years of exploiting buzzwords like “terrorism” and “mushroom clouds” and “homeland” and “weapons of mass destruction” to control the policy debate, the president finally went a buzzword too far.
[Historic footnote: “Appeasement” isn’t talking to a hostile country, it’s giving away countries like Czechoslovakia to a hostile country. If you can’t make sense of history, it’s hard to make sense with policy.]
I’d love to hear people’s comments.